Ups and Downs (pt. 2)

Ups and Downs (pt. 2)

“For millennia, civilization had been living in two dimensions: width and length,” Paul B. Farnsworth says. “With the advent of the safety elevator”—an innovation introduced in the early 1850s, which would keep elevator cars suspended even if their cables failed—“we had three.”

Even when you consider the other ways civilization had already tackled the Y-axis problem—stairs, for instance—Farnsworth makes a good point. Safety elevators have made it possible to develop upward at great scale, with unprecedented ease and security. They’ve democratized height, making multi-floor residences and workplaces accessible to people with injuries, infirmities or disabilities. They’ve made dense urban growth feasible. And that’s really just for starters.

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Farnsworth’s interest in the subject is both personal and professional. If you’ve read Ups and Downs (pt. 1), you know that Farnsworth is a fourth-generation elevator man, and not the kind who wears a funny suit and hat. His family’s been in the business since 1895, when great-grandfather Frederick B. Farnsworth took the helm at a local elevator manufacturer and named it Eastern Machinery Co. You also know that ACME Furniture Co., a 104-year-old vintage decor business now headquartered at 33 Crown Street, installed an Eastern freight elevator in 1916—one that still works and seems to be the oldest elevator of its kind in the city—and that the ACME building has another aged elevator up its sleeve.

The latter’s not the kind you ride, though. It’s an ancient hoist apparatus once used to lift objects up and down the building’s four floors. Occupying its own room in ACME’s attic, it’s got large toothed gears, hefty cast wheels and a wooden driveshaft—a cylinder that extends several feet sideways and spans a hatch in the floor, where whatever it was lifting could pass up or down. As the shaft rotated in the “up” direction, Farnsworth says, long leather belts attached to this or that cargo would wind around it. The hoist would have been connected to a source of power—perhaps, in the machine’s earliest days, via a line shaft, the kind commonly used to distribute energy throughout industrial buildings before the proliferation of electricity.

Robert Greenberg—the son of ACME’s current owner, Alan, and grandson of founder Joseph; a devoted booster of the company; and a rabble-rousing local historian, whose collection of artifacts, now numbering in the thousands, covers every available surface of a room on the third floor—unwinds more of the story. His research pins the brick building’s construction to the late 1870s, and he believes its first tenants, occupying opposite sides of the structure, produced corsets and baking powder, respectively. The sturdiness of the building, he says, signals its original intended use: providing a home for “light industry,” i.e. companies where heavy machinery might be deployed but not fabricated.

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The hoist, Farnsworth thinks, would have been appropriate for both the period and the purpose Greenberg asserts. Farnsworth also thinks it’s an exceedingly valuable artifact in its own right. “This is a very historically significant piece of equipment and the fact that it’s so beautifully preserved does make it relevant to post-civil war manufacturing in New Haven,” he says. “This is a very rare find… I’ve only seen this type of wooden shaft and gear alignment in this particular building. It’s just not available … It may be one-of-a-kind.”

For Greenberg, such talk is by turns music to his ears, fuel to his fire and insult to his injury. Well-known for crusading on behalf of preserving New Haven history, he’s often butted heads with powerful interests. This time, however, the opposing interest is his own family’s, specifically that of the generation above him, which has elected to shutter ACME and sell the building over Greenberg’s protests.

His suspicion that the structure will be turned into an apartment complex if sold is strengthened by the neighborhood’s ongoing luxury apartment boom. His concern that it could be snapped up by developers inclined to do things like scrap the historic elevators is deepened by the thing that makes the building’s elevators so notable in the first place: their uniqueness. Few if any of their kin, once common throughout the city, have survived encounters with new owners.

At the moment, Greenberg feels as lonely as the machines he’s hoping to save. During his bid to change the building’s fate, his brothers and sisters, all younger, haven’t backed him up, he says, and his father recently had a sheriff serve him an eviction notice. It orders him to vacate ACME’s third floor, where he’s maintained an office and collection space, to make way for the building’s sale. “I knew the day would come when there would be a transition,” Greenberg says. He just hoped it would pass to him and his siblings, the way it passed to his father and aunts.

If it did, he believes, ACME could live on as a successful, wealth-generating business through bold ideas and diversification. He envisions a renewed ACME selling high-end furniture on the first floor (where, by the way, he’d remove the drop panel ceiling to reveal pristine stamped tin); hosting art shows and photo shoots on the second level; displaying an expanded museum of local history on the third; housing a bar in the basement; and sporting an open-air garden in the rear, where visitors could both repose and purchase outdoor home decor.

Instead of an apartment building, which is inherently accessible to just a small community of people, 33 Crown Street could remain a public-attracting destination, Greenberg says—a net lift to its neighborhood, like ACME’s always been.

ACME Vintage Furniture
33 Crown St, New Haven (map)
(203) 787-0243

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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